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COVID-19: Tokyo postpones training for Olympics volunteers as government faces criticism

At a time when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be basking in the limelight, the COVID-19 outbreak that has spread from China to even remote parts of Japan has the leader and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party playing defence.

Late Friday, organizers for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics announced they have postponed training for volunteers because of the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Training was scheduled to be held starting Saturday but will be rescheduled, the organizing committee said in a statement, adding organizers are not considering cancelling the games.

Abe has skated through numerous scandals since taking office in late 2012, promising to “Make Japan Great Again.” A relatively strong economy, robust share prices and the absence of strong political rivals have enabled him to hang on as the country’s longest-serving prime minister, with a solid majority coalition.

But at a time when the country should be gearing up for the mass celebration of its first Summer Olympics since 1964, Abe and his government are battling criticism from both within and outside Japan over how they’ve dealt with the outbreak.

That’s particularly true of Tokyo’s handling of the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship stuck in quarantine off the coast of Yokohama as growing numbers of its 3,700 passengers and crew fell sick or were evacuated.

Japan’s economy contracted 6.3% in the last quarter of 2019, after an Oct. 1 sales tax hike dented demand at a time when exports already were languishing thanks to the China-U.S. trade war and trade friction between Tokyo and neighboring South Korea. The boost that Abe got from soaring stock prices early in his first term, when the Nikkei 225 share index more than doubled in 2013-2015, has faded with the index on a plateau for the past two years.

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With the virus outbreak, tourism has nosedived with cancellations of tens of thousands of flights. Chinese tourists, the mainstay of regional travel with nearly 10 million visiting Japan in 2019, are staying away now that the virus has spread beyond the cruise ship to Okinawa, Wakayama and other relatively remote parts of the country as well as Tokyo.

“A multitude of things are going wrong simultaneously, not just for Abe but for Japan as a whole,” said Michael Cucek, assistant professor for Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “It’s a concatenation of things.”

As of Friday, Japan had reported three deaths and 739 cases of the new virus, including 634 from the cruise ship. The last cruise ship passengers testing negative for the virus were due to disembark after a prolonged quarantine on board that drew criticism given the tight quarters and difficulty of isolating sick people from the healthy.

Six health workers, including government officials, contracted the virus, raising questions about the effectiveness of protective measures used.

“Basically the quarantine of a ship is a 19th century type of a strategy. But it was probably hard to make any kind of a decision,” said Hitoshi Oshitani, a virology professor at Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine. “The cruise ship issue is getting bigger and bigger as a political issue.”

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